Now that we’ve had a good half season or so of replay review in baseball, I’m curious what people think of it. Personally, I’m mostly happy with how it’s been working, although there are obviously still some issues to hash out.
For instance, I’m surprised at how often plays do not get overturned, despite what looks like fairly convincing evidence. Maybe the standards of evidence are still a little too high. To me, it seems more like a ‘preponderance of evidence’ than a ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ kind of situation. I also don’t see why replay officials should be biased toward the original call on the field. Let the people with the best evidence make the call.
The most controversial calls have involved plays at the plate. Recently, on my fantasy baseball site, there was discussion of a key play during the July 31 game between the Reds and Marlins. The Reds were down 1-0 in the 8th, with the bases loaded and 1 out. Frazier hit a shallow fly ball to right field, and Cozart tagged up at third. The ball beat him at home by quite a bit, and Cozart ran awkwardly by the plate, getting tagged without sliding. The Marlins left the field, thinking the double-play had ended the inning. But Reds manager Price requested a review.
What happened next was remarkable. The crew in New York spent over six minutes analyzing the play, making this the longest review ever. Here’s the video:
You can see the play right away, but, if you have time, the analysis / time-killing by the Reds broadcasters is kind of interesting. In the end, the call on the field was overturned. Cozart got credit for the run, the Marlins manager was kicked out of the game, and two more Reds scored on the next at bat. The Marlins, playing under protest, ended up losing 3-1.
The reaction to this review was overwhelmingly negative. Here’s Marlins manager Mike Redmond after the game:
As a former catcher in this league for 13 seasons, as a grinder, as a guy who loves this game and respects this game so much, this game has been a part of my life forever, but to lose a ballgame tonight on that play is a joke. It’s an absolute joke. I don’t think anybody who plays this game should feel good about winning that game. And I would say that if [the situation] had been reversed. That guy was out by 15 feet. It was a great baseball play.”
(I suspect the language has been cleaned up a little, especially around the words ‘joke’.)
And here’s some fairly typical analysis from Deadspin’s Sean Newell:
The rule is a mess. Even after the learning experience that was the debacle with Russell Martin in June, no one knows what the hell they should be doing as a play unfolds on the field. […] It’s clear that Mathis is standing in front of the plate, but…where is he supposed to stand? And we don’t really know what “in order to field a throw” means. When is a catcher deemed to have started to field a ball? Is anticipating where the ball will land fielding it? It looks awful, too, because Cozart is clearly dead-to-rights. But confusion reigns: he is unsure of what to do and doesn’t slide, so after the play you can see him raise his arms as if to say “WTF, man?” There was no collision and no contact except for the tag. The purpose is obviously good—no one wants to see Buster Posey get blown up again—but it’s proving to be near impossible to negotiate this rule in-game to any degree of satisfaction.
The key to the decision is the controversial Rule 7.13, which states:
(1) A runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate). If, in the judgment of the umpire, a runner attempting to score initiates contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate) in such a manner, the umpire shall declare the runner out (even if the player covering home plate loses possession of the ball). […]
Rule 7.13(1) Comment: The failure by the runner to make an effort to touch the plate, the runner’s lowering of the shoulder, or the runner’s pushing through with his hands, elbows or arms, would support a determination that the runner deviated from the pathway in order to initiate contact with the catcher in violation of Rule 7.13. If the runner slides into the plate in an appropriate manner, he shall not be adjudged to have violated Rule 7.13. […]
(2) Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score. If, in the judgment of the umpire, the catcher without possession of the ball blocks the pathway of the runner, the umpire shall call or signal the runner safe. Notwithstanding the above, it shall not be considered a violation of this Rule 7.13 if the catcher blocks the pathway of the runner in order to field a throw, and the umpire determines that the catcher could not have fielded the ball without blocking the pathway of the runner and that contact with the runner was unavoidable.
Interestingly, the powers that be were clearly aware that this rule might be controversial, as they included this pre-amble: “The Playing Rules Committee has adopted Rule 7.13 as set forth below on an experimental basis for the 2014 season.”
Sure enough, they got their controversy!
That said, I agree with the decision in this case–and not just because it led to the Reds winning the game! Admittedly, the optics are quite bad. Cozart was out by a mile, and doesn’t even try to slide (or touch the plate). Still, this is exactly the sort of play that used to lead to a big collision at the plate. So, in that sense, it worked exactly as it was supposed to. If the MLB is going to ban collisions at the plate (as they should), then they have to strictly ban catchers from blocking the plate. It’s two sides of the same coin.
Still, there are some problems with how the rule is currently set up. First, catchers have the habit of blocking the plate in these situations, and it’s hard not to do that in the heat of the moment. This problem will take care of itself with a bit of time, as catchers retrain their instincts on these plays.
A bigger problem concerns when to start calling interference. If the runner was halfway between third and home when the catcher had the ball in front of the plate, then we can surely agree that this should not count as interference. Likewise, if the runner arrives right after the catcher catches the ball blocking the plate, then we can all agree that it is interference. But it’s hard to see where you draw the line between these two extremes. At what point does interference begin? In the Cozart play, I think a case can be made for interference. Cozart could have decided to barrel into the catcher, hoping to knock the ball loose. There’s a long history of this happening in baseball, even when the catcher has the ball well in advance. Here’s a particularly remarkable example:
So, if there was potential for a collision in the case of Cozart, which there was, then you have to enforce the corresponding interference rule. The reviewers took way too long, but they got the play right.
Looking forward, what we need is a clear way of showing exactly when interference happens. Here’s my proposal. Put a line on the field, roughly 25 feet up the third base line from home. If catcher receives the ball when the runner is past this line, then he can’t block the plate. Otherwise, he can. (It’s sort of like the circle they use in basketball to determine whether to call a charge.) This would give the umpires a clear (albeit somewhat arbitrary) way of making the call. It would give the catchers something to look at in deciding how to approach the play, and it would be minimally disruptive of the existing game.
I believe this is the best solution to an inevitably awkward situation.